How Do You Know What You’re Looking At?

Last Friday, I went to see Finding Vivian Maier at Real Art Ways in Hartford. Maier, a Chicago-area street photographer, made a living as a nanny in the mid-twentieth century. She took tens of thousands of photos of people she encountered while dragging the kids she cared for across the city, and then let those image languish in storage until they were discovered by John Maloof, an amateur historian, in 2007. He realized that he had on his hands the oeuvre of one of the twentieth century’s best street photographers, and she was entirely unknown.

I won’t go into all of the details of Maloof’s account of bringing Maier’s work to the public because it’s fascinating and everyone should see the movie, but I do want to mention some of his techniques for researching the locations of Maier’s photos. There’s a scene in the movie where Maloof is looking at a black-and-white photo that Maier had taken of a very small town in France, and he’s holding up the photo to his computer, on which is displayed Google Earth. He uses the distinctive church steeple to identify the town. This is similar to what I do to identify the buildings in Richard Welling’s drawings, except I use Street View. As someone who is not from New England or the northeast, I don’t yet have the ability to identify on sight anything but the most notable buildings in Hartford (and New York City, for that matter, which Welling also drew).

So, for example, yesterday I was working on cataloging this drawing:

Richard Welling. Lower Manhattan Buildings. 2012.284.5812

Richard Welling. Lower Manhattan Buildings. 2012.284.5812

It depicts lower Manhattan and, as you can see, there are a number of buildings pictured. I’m pretty sure that the tall ones on the left are the World Trade Center towers, but those were the only ones I recognized immediately. I knew that the buildings in the foreground were probably along the East River, but that’s about all I knew. Time to turn to Google! I first look for general images of the skyline to get a sense of the general area. Once I’ve figured out the area to concentrate on, I can start searching for specific buildings. The easiest ones to identify are the most distinctive, so I look for unusual architectural features. The buildings in the foreground are fairly typical skyscrapers, so in this case I just started Street View-ing my way up FDR Drive near the bottom of Manhattan. Once I found a building that matched one in the drawing, I looked around until I found an address or a name, which I then looked up on the website Emporis, which is a great resource for identifying and dating buildings. I use Emporis to verify that what I’m looking at is indeed the building depicted in the drawing. In this case, I only identified the three large buildings in the foreground because it gets dicey when trying to identify buildings that aren’t fully sketched.

Richard Welling. Lower Manhattan Buildings. 2012.284.5812

One New York Plaza on the right. Richard Welling. Lower Manhattan Buildings. 2012.284.5812

Richard Welling. Lower Manhattan Buildings. 2012.284.5812

Two New York Plaza and 55 Water Street. Richard Welling. Lower Manhattan Buildings. 2012.284.5812

I kind of love playing building detective with these drawings, and I was tickled to see Maloof using the same technique to pin down the locations of Vivian Maier’s photographs!

Tasha Caswell is a Project Cataloger/Researcher at the Connecticut Historical Society.

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